Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Praise of Extroverts

"Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. [...] Let him who is not in community beware of being alone."  
Dietrich Bonhoeffer includes this warning in his challenging little book Life Together. His admonition has come to mind several times this week, as my Facebook newsfeed and Pinterest boards seem to be full of article praising introverts. Posts such as this, this, and this abound. As an off-the-chart introvert (INFJ, according to the Meyers-Brigg Type Index), I suppose I ought to be glad that the general public is receiving sound advice about our care and keeping.

Really, though, I'm kind of sick of all this hype about introverts.  We have our virtues, no doubt, but I think that even these virtues shine best when sharpened against the very real strength of extroverts.

Many of my dearest friends are extroverts, and while we don't always understand one another, we have learned to give thanks for one another. And so, in honor of my father, my Lindsay, my Emily, and so many other dear outward-going friends, I offer a few thoughts in praise of extroverts.

Extroverts enliven community

Left to my own introverted devices, I would only communicate to people through handwritten letters. I might venture face to face conversations if we could meet in the privacy of my own living room, and if we stopped talking every fifteen minutes so I could take a nap to recharge.  Yes, yes, I exaggerate -- but only slightly. I spent most of my adolescence in more-or-less voluntary solitude, ignoring Bonhoeffer's warning. I had no real community, and so my solitude sank into selfishness.

In college, however, I met people who loved people in ways that baffled me. These men and women took pains to connect and gather people together. During these years, I never lost my love of a quiet meal with a good book, but I did discover the new joy of a full table and long, loud, laughing supper.  I still spent hours studying on my own, but I came to appreciate the nights when my friends kidnapped me from the library for an impromptu group road trip. Without my more extroverted friends, my understanding of community and, more importantly, of the Church, would have remained incomplete during those formative college years.

Extroverts model generosity

Even if we seem open and talkative, introverts often reveal our secondary personality traits as our "public" side, while only manifesting primary qualities among trusted friends. For example, my deepest, most powerful response to an idea, person or situation is always emotional, not analytical or rational. However, my public and professional life emphasizes my analytic, thinking side: I have a PhD, I teach critical analysis of literature, etc. I do have a strong rational capacity; it simply isn't my primary response to the world. Only a select few--those I deem worthy--see the parts of me I value the most.

Extroverts, on the other hand, often humble me with their radical openness. They display their hearts and minds to nearly anyone. This can make life with extroverts messy, but at their best, extroverts have taught me how beautiful it can be to meet any human as a potential friend, brother, sister.

Extroverts spread the word

One of my own worst habits as an introvert is projecting my introversion onto others. "I don't want to bother them...." I tell myself, justifying my reticence about mentioning a new book, a concert, even the Gospel. Because I often simply wish to be left alone, even when someone is offering me something brilliant or vital, I  give up too easily when I have a message others need to hear.

My favorite extroverts seem untroubled by these inhibitions. "Come one, come all!" they will cry. "The more the merrier!" Because extroverts garner energy from people, they thrive on the busy street or in the bustling room, and the genuinely want as many people as possible to come, see, taste, and enjoy with them.

Extroverts allow introverts to be introverts

I spend much of my time pretending to be an extrovert, especially in my professional life. Furthermore, as a single person without a nearby "best friend" or family, I have to put myself forward in order to build relationships. These are rewarding efforts, but when I am in the company of a true extrovert, I find myself thanking God for a chance to rest.

Both of my parents are extroverts, and when I am home for Christmas, I savor being able to sit in the living room and simply listen. Visitors might call, and my mother and father will keep them talking, allowing me to sit, smile, and knit. Even introverts love being in a circle of beloved friends, but this introvert certainly appreciates not being the one responsible for keeping the conversation going.

My dear, dear extroverts: you bewilder and exasperate me, but my solitude would have little value without your challenging, God-gathering witness. It may seem like everyone's celebrating introverts these days, but at least one among your quiet kindred wants you to know how much she loves you.

A few of my favorite extroverts....

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Grant us, Lord, a grocery store

As a child, one of my favorite games was "pioneers." Inspired by the Little House books, I spent hours pretending that I had packed my wagon, left loved ones behind, and ventured into the wilderness. This was an apt game for an American child, for as soon I was eighteen, I began to measure success in the number of miles I had travelled from home. I had plenty of good stories to help me wander, plenty of epics and novels and allegories to tell me that moving is best, exile is ideal.

I don't want to dismiss the years in which "home" was a complicated, and at times nearly hopeless, concept for me. Part of living the Way of Christ is knowing that we are "sojourners and exiles" in this world (1 Peter 2:11). At the same time, when God's people were living in exile in Babylon, the Word of the Lord came through the prophet Jeremiah, saying "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:28).

As I wrote yesterday, I am living, for the first time in memory, without the feeling that I will soon be moving on. Perhaps (not certainly, but perhaps) this will be home for the rest of my life on earth. As I try to understand what that means, the words of Jeremiah provide some hopeful clues. "Carry on," the prophet tells me. "Wager that you will have time for your seeds to sprout. Know your neighbors. Pray for the prosperity of this place."

Today, praying for the prosperity of this place means praying for a grocery store. When I imagine a prosperous community, I imagine a self-sufficient place, where people have access to the goods and services they need, and where they directly contribute to the welfare of one another by using those goods and services. One reason I moved to this community was its potential for that kind of self-sufficiency. The city is laid out in a way that makes walking and cycling easy, and from my house, I can reach a school, two churches, and three gas stations by walking for about 5 minutes. Walk a little longer--or bike--and I can easily reach a post office, general store, bank, and pharmacy.

By unidentified (unidentified) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At the same time, there are many vacant buildings in Chickasaw that point to a time when more businesses could thrive in a small town. The hardware store is still in business, but most of their wares are dusty and faded, as though the inventory hasn't moved for years. Many more are simply empty. I pray for these buildings each time I walk, ride, or drive by. I want little local businesses, affordable and intimate, to thrive here. I want a proper grocery store, with a good selection of produce and all the basic dry goods.  I am praying that some entrepreneur will move into town and set up shop. I keep trying to think of un or under-employed friends who might be up to the challenge. For my own purposes, having a grocery store would mean I could do nearly all my shopping within Chickasaw itself.

At the same time, when I ask God for a grocery store, I am doing more than praying for a more convenient errand route. I am begging food for the roots I am trying to put down here. I am praying for a place where I can see my neighbors, know their children, ask about their lives. In other words, when I pray for a grocery store, I am praying for God's kingdom to come in Chickasaw as it is in heaven.

I've never had much patience for middle ground: either I am painting my dreams with universal strokes, abiding in enormous ideals, or I am nesting in small spaces, building little altars in the grass outside my door. Trying to pray for a national economy or a multi-national peace plan overwhelms me, frustrates me with particulars and logistics and obstacles. Only among the stars or down with the grass-roots do my hands feel free to pray and build. And so today I pray:

Grant us, Lord, a grocery store.

Monday, August 5, 2013

One year in Alabama

Rain is pouring off my roof, drops matching the swift rhythm of the ceiling fan here on the porch. Summer--the last summer of my twenties--ends soon, and having lived my entire life on an academic calendar, the end of summer always feels like the end of the year. That's an especially apt feeling now, as the end of summer also marks the end of my first year in Alabama.

One year. 1/6 of the time I lived in Texas. 1/4 of the time I was at college. 1/30 of my life thus far. I've used my blog to chronicle much of what has happened in the last year: the victorious graduation that preceded it, the bittersweet departure from Texas, the rich hospitality of my colleagues and students, the quest to buy a house, the magnificent trip to Italy.

My first year in Alabama has been a festival year, a year of bounty, a year in which everything has felt so new. This is the year for which I have planned, waited, and prayed for so long.

As this year ends, my first feeling is gratitude to the God who has made me say,
"The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance" (Psalm 16:6) 
And welling up with the gratitude comes wonder. Specifically, wonder at the idea of stability, rootedness, being-here-ness.  For the first time in my life, I'm not directing my work and energy to some future place, and while I rest in this thought, I'm not entirely sure what to do with it. From kindergarten onward I was looking forward to college; in college I was deeply content but could never forget that I would have to move on one day; and in grad school I worked, lived, and loved with the knowledge that I did not come to Texas to stay. I do not mean to say that I would never leave Mobile, but I have no desire to leave, and I may never have reason to leave.

What does that mean? How do I do this well? How do I pray for the years to come? These are the questions I am asking myself on a rainy Alabama afternoon, as thunder and church bells ring out together, one year later.